September beauty

by Jonathan Damery

September 14, 2018

September beauty

Honeybees frequent the late summer flowers of Rhus chinensis ‘September Beauty’ (929-89*A), which speckles the pavement with tiny white petals. Photos by Jonathan Damery.

At this time of year, the mind starts turning towards decay. Small pears lie smashed on the pavement, picked over by insects and birds. Leaves have fallen from some trees, which now stand almost completely denuded, as though asleep before the party even started, or certainly before the dessert course came with fanfare and panache. Hawthorns linger wanly on lichen-encrusted branches. My mind, personally, has turned towards my stomach. I’m thinking of edible fruits—wondering when ‘Roxbury Russet’ and other rough-skinned apples will start appearing at the farmers market.

Some plants, however, pull you into a different time zone, reminding you that guests have yet to arrive at the dinner table. I’m not talking about fashionably late guests, because these latecomers are right on time, simply running on their own schedule. Chief among these is ‘September Beauty’, a cultivar of Chinese sumac (Rhus chinensis, accession 929-89*A), now flowering along Peters Hill Road. Over the past weeks, I watched as another specimen of the same species (accession 475-80*C)—wild collected and obtained from the Chinese Academy of Forestry—cloaked itself with white panicles, high above Meadow Road. That specimen created a backdrop for our collection of common smoketree (Cotinus coggygria), which had already turned to a brown tinder of seeds and puff, but those sumac flowers were not easily viewed up close.

‘September Beauty’, however, cannot be overlooked. It begs for admiration. The large panicles, at the moment, are crowded with honeybees (Apis mellifera), as though the winged congregation is flocking to the grocery store before the first winter blizzard, when everyone needs carrots and celery for stock, not to mention bread and canned fish. I counted more than a dozen honeybees on a single panicle of ‘September Beauty’. And the bees—this is no exaggeration—were so abundant on a recent morning that their presence was audible: a faint hum, layered atop the background thrum of traffic and the beeping of trucks moving in reverse.

Yet while the plant is remarkable—over ten individual stems that arise as a grove—I couldn’t help noticing the tiny petals littering the pavement. (Apparently, my autumnal spirit of decomposition and death has not completely abated.) The petals were abstractly beautiful—minimalistic and understated, like glitter strewn on a now empty dancefloor. A few yellow leaflets dropped onto the composition without flourish, adding a touch of texture. Bike tracks could be observed within the petals, along with evidence of the general flow beneath the canopy: the scuffle of a friendly poodle, craving attention, and regulars walking in tandem, all leaving traces, no matter how ephemeral. The other Chinese sumac (the one on Meadow Road) had offered a similar record, but those petals have now lost their luminous glow, drifting and accumulating in a tanned strip along the edge of the road.

Our specimen of ‘September Beauty’ arrived from Rutgers University, which introduced the cultivar through a breeding program run by Elwin Orton, now an emeritus professor, who is known for developing significant cultivars of dogwoods (Cornus) and hollies (Ilex). Really, however, while ‘September Beauty’ was named for the large plumes—the ones that keep bees busy late—the show carries well into October, or at least it should. The leaves are large pinnate numbers with flattened wings running along the midrib, and those will soon lose their lustrous sheen and shift to golden orange. The color isn’t quite the five-alarm fire that characterizes other species of sumac, but it is still a fitting denouement to the season, a surprising and just dessert.

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